Monday, March 29, 2021
Professor Cliff Villa of the University of New Mexico School of Law has just published Remaking Environmental Justice in the Loyola Law Review. Below is the abstract, and the full article is available here: https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/law_facultyscholarship/846/
From movements for civil rights in the 1960s and environmental protection in the 1970s, the environmental justice movement emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to highlight the disparate impacts of pollution, principally upon people of color and low-income communities. Over time, the scope of environmental justice expanded to address concerns for other dimensions of diversity, including gender, culture, and age. Some of this expansion reflected early principles of environmental justice for equity and inclusion in all aspects of environmental protection. However, the expanded scope of environmental justice also reflected deliberate efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move away from what might be seen as programs for affirmative action. A resulting concern for “all people” raises the question of whether “environmental justice” retains any unique meaning today.
In 2020, we saw that “all people” were not affected equally by COVID-19, with disproportionate impacts on blacks, Latinos, and indigenous communities. In 2020, we also saw unabated racism and racial violence, such as the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In 2020, we saw diverse communities, such as Flint, Michigan, continuing to lack necessities such as safe drinking water. And with every next catastrophic fire, flood, hurricane, or drought, we see further evidence of the uneven impacts of climate change. Together, these new and continuing challenges tell us that we still need an “environmental justice” to help focus our attention and resources on the disparate impacts of environmental harm. However, these new and continuing challenges may also tell us that we need to reframe our understanding of environmental justice to ensure better protection for people going forward.
One way to reframe this understanding may be to apply the heuristic of vulnerability analysis as proposed by legal theorist Martha Fineman and subsequent scholars. Starting from recognition that vulnerability is inherent in the human condition, vulnerability theory has already been explored in a variety of contexts, but has yet to be fully investigated as a means for reframing environmental justice for future application. This article urges further consideration of vulnerability theory in the environmental justice context. It specifically proposes a new definition of “environmental justice” to incorporate vulnerability theory in order to assist policymakers and community advocates with identifying the people most at risk from environmental hazards and most in need of attention to protect their health and safety.